Robbie Fulks. The Admiral Bar, Glasgow. Friday 8th August, 2014

P1020576

A packed crowd attended this show from North Carolina born, Chicago based Robbie Fulks on this his first visit to Glasgow in around seven years and it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of them were at his last concert given the familiarity with his songs on evidence tonight. Taking time out from a UK tour with The Mekons to appear here while his companions headed up to Inverness prior to their show at Belladrum, Fulks elected not to have a night off citing his affection for promoters The Fallen Angels Club and recalling that he played their first ever Glasgow Americana festival all those years ago.

A tall guy, Fulks just about had headroom in this cellar bar but his main concern was the lack of air conditioning as the place was like an oven even before he came on. He didn’t complain mind you, instead it became part of his comic patter which throughout the show threatened to outshine his performance of his excellent songs. Hugely funny at times he gave us a great impression of Jonathon Richman as if he were a mixture of Spock and Napoleon Dynamite, imagined his pals, The Mekons, watching Tom Jones at Belladrum that night ( throwing in some Tom Jones’ hip shakes) while towards the end he freewheeled some improvised comic lyrics comparing Glasgow and Edinburgh and referencing Monty Python. If he weren’t such a great writer and performer he’d make a fine stand up comedian.

However we were here for the songs and Fulks rewarded us in spades. Opening with Georgia Hard his fine tenor voice had the audience spellbound while his guitar break was a fine reminder that he is a top notch picker. Rockbottom Population One followed before Fulks introduced a song from his latest album, Gone Away Backwards, explaining that the album was an opportunity to return to his roots with an acoustic bluegrass sound. Sometimes The Grass Is Always Greener certainly bore that out with his fine guitar work and lonesome voice sounding like a one man bluegrass band. Classic songs tumbled out of Fulks including I Push Right Over and, a highlight of the night and another song from Gone Away Backwards, I’ll Trade You Money For Wine where he placed a capo high on his guitar neck to produce a claw hammer effect and for a short time transported the bar to the Appalachians. This was shiveringly good.

Midway through Fulks asked for audience requests which were then thrown thick and fast at him and he obliged almost al. Cigarette State ( he congratulated the audience for laughing each time he repeated the line Alabama’s grand, the State not the band) featured another incredible guitar break which would give Richard Thompson a run for his money while Scrapple occasioned a great story on how he was offered a prime slot at a Scrapple convention before he enlightened the organisers on the lyrical content. The Buck starts Here was given a tremendous outing, again with an absurdly funny Owens story to go with it before closing requests with I Like The Bangle Girl. Let’s Kill Saturday Night ended the show before Fulks returned with his sublime doggerel and finely an upstanding She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died which had the crowd on their feet as he left the stage and walked around them.
P1020581

Soaked to the skin almost Fulks finished and headed straight to the merch table where he gracefully spoke to just about everyone in the room as they filed by. He was still there when we left humming several of his songs and wondering how long before he comes back. One of the best shows of the year so far.

Steve Earle/Monica Queen. Glasgow Kelvingrove Bandstand. Thursday 7th August.

P1020566

First opportunity to attend a show at the refurbished bandstand in Kelvingrove Park and what a change. Not so much in the venue but actually having a ticketed place to sit while the arena was enclosed by a battery of drink and food stands, OK if you dig cider and seemingly many of the audience did with a constant trail of imbibers climbing to and from their places for much of the evening and consequently ensuring that the inadequate toilet facilities had huge queues so that to spend a penny one missed several songs from the show. Anyway, gripe over, bar the fact that Kelvin Walkway was closed southward so that when the show was over the throng had to squeeze through a small park gate and in pitch black find their way to Sauchiehall Street, a potential disaster I thought.

On the bright side it was a bright day. Sunshine through the day had dimmed somewhat by evening although it remained warm and dry and once the sun had set and the arena lights came on it was a magical sight, adding to the warmth from the crowd to the man they had come to see. It was still daylight when Earle came on stage, solo, guitar, harp and mandolin to hand. This current tour is just him, his equipment and a suitcase, a minstrel zigzagging through Europe for around two months. His first show on the tour was at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival two weeks ago and while the show was fine there was a lack of spark, not something one generally expects from an Earle show. Tonight, with a similar set list (and the same anecdotes) Earle was revitalised, perhaps well warmed up after several shows, perhaps the venue (and Glasgow, there does seem to be a special relationship here), perhaps the audience reaction, singing along by the third song, going bananas for Galway Girl and crowding to stand in front of the stage like moths to a flame, dancing and generally, as we say here, giving it laldly. Whatever it was Earle fed on it with the end result a truly magnificent show.

P1020532

With such a back catalogue to choose from Earle could have played twice as long and still not satisfied everyone however the show followed a trajectory that allowed Earle to warm the crowd up before some breakup songs (he’s in the throes of yet another divorce it seems), songs that documented or were written when he was in the grip of his addiction before homing in with the expected crowd pleasers to finish. Having said that he opened the show with an unfamiliar song (Girl On The Mountain?) but swiftly followed up with My Old Friend The Blues and I Ain’t Never Satisfied, the latter with the audience joining in on the chorus. Taneytown was followed by the heartbreak songs Now She’s Gone and Goodbye with Earle quipping “same girl, different harmonica” in between. Sparkle and Shine showed his romantic bent while for Valentine’s day he delivered the first of his stories relating how he had to write the song as he couldn’t drive to buy flowers on Feb 13th as he didn’t have a licence before going on to berate the 14th as a ploy to sell cards. Romance done with Earle launched into a ferocious delivery of I Feel Alright which lifted the show up several notches, from her on in he could do no wrong. A heckler was shut up with Earle telling him he “didn’t have a fuckin’ say in what I play up here, this is my job man,” although later after he baited another shout out asking if he was on probation and had to get home early before his bracelet blew up, he did add that the request would come later.
South Nashville Blues was powerful with Earle demonstrating that armed only with a guitar he can transform misery into magic. At the end he said that the song made his addiction sound much more fun than it actually was before stating “welcome to my nightmare” and delivering a stark and equally powerful CCKMP. His announcement that he would be celebrating his twentieth year of recovery in September was greeted with applause. Earle then played tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt with a story and a rendition of Rex’s Blues followed by a mesmerising Fort Worth Blues. By now it was dark and a portion of the audience had started to drift towards the stage in a similar manner to the insects you could see swirling around the spotlights. A cheer erupted as Earle strapped on a mandolin and sure enough (after a slight sound hiccup) Dixieland, The Galway Girl and Tom Ames’ Prayer started the party portion of the gig. Dancing erupted, front stage and elsewhere as the Celtic elements of the songs ratified Earle’s hold on the Glasgow folk. A terrific tale about Earle’s then errant son Justin and a missing revolver led into the very spirited The devil’s Right Hand before Copperhead Road plunged some of the crowd into a frenzy. Earle returned for one song, prefaced by a lengthy introduction. He told us he was travelling to play in Tel Aviv in a few days time, an announcement that seemed to draw a gasp from some of the audience. Explaining that he was teaming up with a friend, David Broza, an Israeli peace activist who proposed to play a sunrise show at the ancient fortress of Masada on Sunday despite the show being cancelled by the authorities, Earle compared the pessimism of those who think of the Palestinian cause as a lost cause with his own past and recalled passing bomb detectors to check into hotels in Belfast back in the eighties, another lost cause back then that proves things can get better. This was soaked up by the crowd as Earle ended the night with Jerusalem, a demonstration not only of his artistic skill but also a reminder of his mighty heart.
P1020557

Pity poor Monica Queen who opened for Earle with partner Johnnie Smillie on guitar. The usual issues for opening acts were amplified with the grounds less than half full, folk queuing for their ciders and meeting, greeting and seating themselves down. In addition their amplification was barely adequate to carry to the back. Despite this Queen captured those folk at the front and the others paying attention with a fine set of songs. By the time they played an excellent cover of Wrecking Ball more folk were listening and the hometown road trip of The 260 allowed Queen’s yearning crystal clear voice full rein. With a switch to electric guitar for the last number, The Holiest Night, they created a small cathedral of sound despite the hubbub coming from the carnival of cider tents at the back.

P1020468

Ags Connolly. How About Now. Drumfire Records

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, perhaps the same is true for an album but West Oxfordshire’s Ags Connolly certainly lays out his stall on the cover of How About Now. Connolly is pictured, solitary, in a bar with a lonesome bottle of Lone Star beer in front of him as he stares at a woman leaving. The bar is decorated with posters of honky tonk heroes including Waylon and Willie along with Hank Snow, Johnny Paycheck and Davis Allan Coe. Unsurprisingly when you get to the music it’s a fine collection of beer and tear stained songs with a nice big dollop of twang to go with it.

Connolly describes himself as an “Ameripolitan” musician, a term coined we think by Dale Watson who felt that “country music” has been co-opted and irreversibly corrupted by Music Row in Nashville. There’s now an Ameripolitan Awards scheme which sets out its mission quite firmly here . Suffice to say that Connolly sings country music that is firmly rooted in the old tradition with no trace of big hats, AOR rock or autotune in his voice. From the start of the album he again sets out that old stall of his with the mighty proclamation, When Country Was Proud, which celebrates Johnny Paycheck’s The Little Darlin’ Years and name checks many of the outlaws pictured on the album cover. It’s a cracking song with curling pedal steel, saloon piano and big thick creamy guitars while Connolly’s voice bears comparison with the likes of Jennings.

Connolly racks up winner after winner on the songs that follow with several hard edged rockabilly and honky tonk numbers including I saw James Hand (another nod to one of his heroes) and The Dim and Distant Past where the band whip up a real humbuckin’ storm with some great piano on the outro. He’s equally at home on the sad sack laments of She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore and That’s The Last Time wringing out the emotion for all it’s worth. He’s ably supported throughout the album (which he recorded in Edinburgh with Dean Owens in the producer’s chair) by Kev McGuire on double bass , Jim McDermott, drums and Andy May on keyboards while Stuart Nisbet is superb on electric and pedal steel guitars. Connolly was excellent when he appeared recently at Perth’s Southern fried Festival and he returns to Scotland for a shows in Edinburgh and Aberdeen in October.

website

Petunia. Inside Of You.

This summer is turning out to be a bumper time for great music with excellent albums arriving almost daily. Petunia (formerly billed as Petunia and the Vipers) doesn’t disappoint with his follow up to his 2012 album (reviewed here) which Blabber’n’Smoke saw as evidence of a “left field genius.” While Inside Of You doesn’t quite have the jaw dropping effect that the Petunia and The Vipers album had it still provides thrills galore. Some chin stroking moments as the listener wonders what on earth is going on perhaps but at its best there’s some of the most vibrant country swing and modern rockabilly we’ve heard in a long time while Petunia toys with genres on several of the more challenging listens.

The Vipers are present along with a slew of Vancouver’s best including Paul Rigby (Neko Case, Garth Hudson and Calexico) while Frank Fairfield also makes an appearance and they open the album with an almighty clatter on the thrilling railroad countrybilly of Runaway Freight Train Heart which propels turbo charged twang guitar riffs and licks at the listener while the rhythm section goes at it pell mell. There’s more muscle on the junkyard blues of Primitive Love which is like a cross between Peggy Lee and The Cramps as it sashays with a wicked jungle sway and lewd trumpet. The trumpet returns accompanied by snaking guitar and a mutant cocktail jazz backing on The One Thing while Oh My Mother vamps along like a subdued Cab Calloway with some jazzy fiddle included (and there’s aSpanish version hidden at the end of the CD). Petunia and his cohorts head into Western Swing territory on the album’s closing numbers as They Almost Had Me Believing is buoyed by some tremendous lap steel playing with the final song, Tear Drops Rolling adding fiddle to the mix while Petunia’s high, wide and lonesome vocals are the icing on the cake.

If this were all then the album would rate highly but scattered within these superb romps Petunia offers some other gems which serve to show his peculiar genius and raise the album from good to great. Forgotten Melody is an odd song by any standard. It races along with nimble double bass, sticks and Django Reinhart guitar runs almost outpacing Petunia’s rushed vocals before JP Carter’s trumpet soars into view. There’s a continental air to this with a whiff of the circus like music of Nino Rota in the sixties as the song twists and turns with an almost cartoon like elasticity. There’s an audacious key change in the coda which borders on genius. Bicycle Song is a wonderful slice of whimsy that recalls the earlier album as Petunia scats and plays with the words as the band lay down a lap steel flavoured buzz. Holy Budge Winters features Frank Fairfield on pump organ on a song that sounds as if it were rescued from The Anthology of American Folk Music as Petunia relates a tale redolent of God fearin’ times as a travelling showman prays for rain to put out forest fires. Petunia plays with the song, bringing it up to date as helicopter and ‘plane water drops fail to quench the flames. When his prayers are answered and rain falls he goes to church but as Petunia sings
” he went to a church it was closed so he went to another one where he hadn’t been in years and he said his thankyou’s and then his work was done.”
On the title song Petunia stands alone with just his guitar and voice as he offers an epistle urging self awareness. Its testament to his talent that this solo effort, the longest on the album at six minutes, keeps your attention throughout.

Inside Of You is an album that on one level immediately grabs you with its hi-octane offerings but one that repays repeated listens as its onion layers are unveiled. It’s odd in parts but that’s part of the joy in delving into it. Blabber’n’Smoke saw Petunia live at Celtic Connections two years ago and they were magnificent live. They’re returning to the UK later this year and on the strength of this it’s a show to see.

website

Malcolm Holcombe. Pitiful Blues.

Another North Carolina resident and another slice of raw country, this time from Malcolm Holcombe who has ditched the star studded line up of his last album (Down The River) and along with producer and Dobro player Jared Tylor delivered a raw set recorded live in his home studio with accompaniment on double bass, fiddle and occasional drums. It’s a warm, organic, stubbly recording, you can hear the scrape of hands on fret boards, feet hitting the floor, all that’s missing is a crackling fire and crickets. What’s not missing is the raw growl and gurn that is Holcombe’s voice. Worn, weary, hoarse, take your pick, he sounds the way Townes Van Zandt was going towards the end, he sounds like the blind character played by Levon Helm in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he sounds like a Grizzly Bear.

The songs here are uniformly excellent. There’s some toe tappin’ high jinks on Another Despair, Words Of December is a very fine and nimble Appalachian styled number while the opening title song resonates with biblical vengeance. Savannah Blues finds Holcombe as an ancient sounding narrator, bones aching and singing from beyond the grave in a cold and lonely bed following a Yellow Fever outbreak, the music is suitably spooky and atmospheric. The Music Plays On is more up to date celebrating baseball with a nod to another North Carolina musician, Mark Germino. Here Holcombe recalls the likes of john Prine and Guy Clark with the song a fine acoustic country blues with Taylor’s Dobro prominent. The closing For The Love Of A Child is an excellent meditation on regret for past wild times now redeemed with a shared responsibility in the shape of a kid. Here and throughout the album the music is warm as guitar, Dobro, bass and drums fuse into an organic whole which is heart warming and comforting.

website

Here’s Holcombe singing Pitiful Blues on Dublin’s Balcony TV.

Robbie Fulks Glasgow show.

This Friday there’s a rare opportunity to catch the always excellent Robbie Fulks close up in action. Fulks is one of the greats of modern country music, a fantastic writer and performer, solo or with a band backing. His 1996 album Country Love Songs is a classic with She Took A Lot Of Pills (And Died) a personal favourite here. Last year’s release, Gone Away Backwards, is a tremendous collection of gentler, mostly acoustic country folk songs which Mojo called his best yet while Rolling Stone placed it in their top ten country albums of 2013.

Fittingly the show’s being put on by Glasgow’s Fallen Angels Club as Fulks played at their first ever Glasgow Americana Festival. Friday is a solo appearance and if he’s anywhere close to the form he was on when I saw him several years ago in the 13th Note then it should be a belter of a night. Great songs and wicked humour going hand in hand.

Tickets here

Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock. Louds Hymn.

Regular readers will know that Blabber’n’Smoke have championed North Carolina’s Michael Rank since his first release with his country folk roots conglomeration Stag turned up two years ago. Rank rapidly followed that disc, Kin, with two others, In The Weeds and Mermaids with all three almost perfect collections of wearied and wounded laments and cries from the heart. To have three such albums from the one artist in a space of around 18 months almost beggars belief but amazingly Rank has gone and done it again with Deadstock which is at least the equal of its three predecessors. Rank again recorded his basic tracks before adding Stag regulars John Howie, drums, Billie Feather and Jessie Huebner, bass, John Teer, fiddle, mandolin, Nathan Gloub, pedal steel and Alex Iglehart, guitar to the mix. His regular vocal foil, Emily Frantz is missing from the action however Rank adds the excellent Skylar Gudasz on harmony vocals on several of the songs while Chip Robinson from The Backsliders helps out vocally on two songs. The end result is ten songs of aching beauty with guitars haltingly picked, fiddle slowly sawed and pedal steel weeping as Rank plumbs the depths of his emotions and, like a phoenix risen from the ashes, is reborn. Indeed his journey from the wracked hopelessness of Kin, an album recorded in the aftermath of a breakup, to the tentative optimism of some of the songs here (albeit seen through a dark prism) is a classic cold and dark tale which the music reflects, recalling the chilling images of the movie, Winter’s Bone.

Now, some of the above might seem a tad over the top but to these ears Rank has produced some of the most compelling music of the past few years. The opening bars of Deadstock , a weary guitar strum with his raw voice singing “I ain’t takin’ no more prisoners anymore, ‘cos I done run out of chain. And I ain’t taking no more lovers anymore, ‘cos they all end up the same” sends shivers up my spine before the band kicks in like the James-Younger gang galloping through Northfield, proud, rural, earthy and defiant, the fiddle saws like a demon as the song draws to a close. Idle Hands chills the air and it’s almost impossible to cast aside images glommed from the cinema of dirt poor Americans scrabbling to live on a blasted land, shattered by a civil war and throughout the album (and indeed all of the albums) there’s an antebellum air as if Rank was keeping alive centuries old traditions. We’ve mentioned Rank’s affinity to Keith Richard’s country blues before and The World On Fire is yet another song that could have been snatched from Stones’ outtakes for Satanic Majesties. Slow as Mississippi mud the song ripples with mandolin and subtle electric guitar licks. Teeth Of The Sun alternately shimmers and sparks with the verses held aloft by tentative mandolin plucking and plaintive fiddle while pedal steel blossoms wonderfully on the vibrant refrain, altogether it’s a gorgeous song. For anyone who thinks The Felice Brothers are the business when it comes down to chunky, funky country rock then The Stars are Brighter will blow your socks off as it seesaws and creaks away, a porch song to end all porch songs as if it were captured on sepia film stock way back when. A weeping fiddle introduces the superb All The Animals, another song that cuts to the bone as Rank and Gudasz almost whisper into the microphone creating a hermetic world of broken love and despair as the music swirls gently around like a wounded whippoorwill.

Rank has dedicated all four of his albums to his son, Bowie Ryder and here he sings directly to him on the song, Son, where he reflects on his own maturation as a parent and offers advice to the boy, a rare ray of sun on an otherwise dark album. Indeed the album ends with Bounty, a raw revenge story that again recalls frozen ground and winter bare trees as he avows a terrible vengeance on a killer threatening to cut a line right down his spine. Chilling and hypnotic and absolutely brilliant.

There’s nothing else to say here really other than that if you like raw, bleak and spellbinding “dark Country” then Rank is the man to see. All four albums are recommended but Deadstock might just be a nose ahead so far. Mind you, he might come up with something better in a few month’s time.

website

Ryan Joseph Anderson. Weaver’s Broom

Weaver’s Broom by Chicago’s Ryan Joseph Anderson is a perfect example of an outstanding album that arrives unheralded in the office, patiently awaits its turn on the player and then knocks out the listener with its excellence. Anderson was the front man for Chicago rock band Go Long Mule and when they disbanded last year he headed to Nashville to record this with Andijja Tokic, who has worked with the Alabama Shakes, producing. The end result is a near perfect listen with elements of Van Morrison and Lowell George woven into the soulful country sound. Anderson recalls Morrison vocally at times but it’s the stirring mixture of pedal steel, organ and guitars that summon up the Caledonian soul aspect of the album. This is most apparent on Before The War with the opening line “we were young before the war” alluding to Into The Mystic and another Morrison song, Wild Children. The song itself is a tender ballad with Anderson honey voiced over simple finger picked acoustic guitar and double bass. The title song finds Anderson channelling Morrison’s vocal style (late sixties version) as the songs swells from country blues to a minor squall of guitars and pedal steel while Mission Bell would sit well on Morrison’s Veedon Fleece album.

The album isn’t however a Morrison by numbers affair. The opening Crooked Heart is a tremendous country rock ballad with bar room piano and elegant pedal steel as Anderson’s fine vocals are supported by fine harmonies from Jen Donahue. When The Bees Went Mad opens with a clatter of drumsticks and twang guitar before Farfisa organ weighs in with the overall effect being that of a sparkier Los lobos. Jericho is the song that recalled Lowell George for us, not so much the playing which is quite Anglicised, at times reminiscent of Nick Drake or early John Martyn, but for the lyrics and Anderson’s phrasing of the refrain, Blow Your Horn Home. George is brought to mind again on Leave Me In The Middle although this time it’s the band’s playing which recalls the easy funk of Little Feat. Wandering Apparition takes us back to Jericho territory with the guitar/organ combination firing sparks off of each other. Fortune And Fate is a fine old fashioned swing through Southern soul territory with the band firing on all cylinders.

Throughout the album, John Estes on bass, keyboards and pedal steel and Dave Racine on drums provide sterling work while Jen Donahue is excellent as a vocal foil for Anderson’s laid back singing. All in all it’s a great album, understated and soulful while Anderson’s writing and in particular his voice lifts it up into the upper echelons..

website

Fortune and Fate from Ryan Joseph Anderson on Vimeo.